03/17/2011 3:54PM

Rebel Stakes contender Sway Away prettier than he looks

Shigeki Kikkawa
Sway Away was a fast-closing second in the San Vicente.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Dips might be fun when riding a roller coaster, but when it comes to getting on a swaybacked racehorse, sometimes it’s not much of a joy ride.

“I’ve ridden a couple that were so bad it felt like you were sitting down in a bucket,” jockey Garrett Gomez said. “They’re not a lot of fun to ride. You feel like you’re going uphill.”

Gomez lately has been getting some practice in the art. He is the regular rider of Sway Away, whose name pays homage to his physical flaw. That apparently hasn’t interfered with his performances, though. In three starts, Sway Away owns a win and two second-place finishes, including a runner-up effort last time out in the San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita. On Saturday, he tries two turns for the first time in the Grade 2, $300,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

As swaybacks go, “He’s not that bad,” Gomez said.

“It probably looks worse than it is,” Gomez added.

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They can look pretty bad. Swayback horses have a noticeable dip in the center of their back. It can be a malady that affects horses as they get older, such as mares who have produced multiple foals, or stallions who are now senior citizens, like A.P. Indy. It is less common in young racehorses. The most-pronounced swaybacked horses need special equipment to secure a saddle in place. Gomez said Sway Away doesn’t need any special tack.

John Sparkman, currently the bloodstock editor of the weekly trade publication Thoroughbred Times and the former general manager of Pillar Stud in Kentucky, said the most-pronounced swaybacked horse he dealt with at Pillar was the grass mare Ludham, who in the late 1960s won 13 of 39 starts, including such top races as the Sheepshead Bay Handicap and Suwannee River Handicap. She also ran third in the Epsom Oaks.

“She had to wear a running martingale to keep the saddle in place,” Sparkman said. “She was a very high-class staying grass mare who might well have been a champion if there had been a category for her back then.

“Sway backs don’t slow a horse down at all,” Sparkman added. “They can be something of a management issue if they’re severe like hers was, but other than that it’s simply a bit unsightly.”

Indeed, Jeff Bonde, who trains Sway Away, believes Sway Away’s appearance might have tamped down his price at last year’s Barrett’s March Sale of 2-year-olds in training, where Sway Away was acquired for a partnership for $75,000.

“He was a little swayback, which hurt his price,” said Bonde, who bought Sway Away in consultation with bloodstock agent Mersad Metanovic. “But he was a good-sized horse with a good walk. He had a real efficient stride. It may have hurt his price, but I thought he trained really well.”

Sway Away made his first start last June at Pleasanton, where Bonde keeps a large string of horses, and won easily, by 3 1/4 lengths going five furlongs. He then was sent to Del Mar, where Sway Away finished a close second to J P’s Gusto in the Best Pal Stakes. After that, though, he was sidelined until the San Vicente.

“He wrenched his left knee. We plucked a little flake out of there,” Bonde said.

According to trainer Hector Palma, knees can be an issue for a swaybacked horse. Palma knows all too well. In the early 1980s, he trained the talented but fragile Slew’s Royalty, a son of Seattle Slew who had a severe swayback. Slew’s Royalty made only seven starts, and won four of them, then went to stud in California, where he had a productive career.

“With him, it was knees,” Palma said. “He was a tremendous horse. He’d win, and then you’d have to walk him for 10 days, because he was ouchy, ouchy, ouchy. Ten days later, forget it, he was ready to go.

“I’ve had a few swaybacks,” Palma said. “One thing, they’re all racehorses. I don’t know why.”

In his comeback race, Sway Away picked up right where he left off. He closed furiously to finish second to The Factor in the seven-furlong San Vicente.

“I thought he ran really well. He almost overcame the speed bias,” Bonde said.

That was the first time Gomez rode Sway Away in a race.

“Jeff thought he could really run,” Gomez said. “Jeff didn’t know how fit he was for that race. He ran a really good race. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had worked him twice. He worked good for me one day, then worked out of the gate, and didn’t work as well. In the race, I let him get on his feet, get his rhythm, a route rhythm. He also got dirt in his face, so we accomplished a lot at the same time.

“He’s worked really well the two times I’ve worked him since the race,” Gomez said. “Hopefully he’ll adapt to two turns. I think he will.”

Hang on tight. It’s the road to the Derby, a bumpy ride under the best of circumstances.

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